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Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week's album is Run The Jewels 3, the third album from the dynamic duo of El-P and Killer Mike, which was released on Christmas Eve.
When El-P unchained Run the Jewels 3 on the eve of the year’s happiest day, the, “gasp!” it received bore a different aura than the 10 bazillion other surprise drops this year. The intake of air was just as sharp, the reception as warm, and shock as potent, but the exhale settled into one more of relief than excitement. 2016’s lack of chill has been well documented since the early days of January, so of course it would finagle a last few sucker punches: as of Christmas Day George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds and Alphonse Mouzon have garnered obits. RTJ3 came right when it had to.
It’s interesting what can be described as comfort music. The term brings to mind gentle guitars, tickling drums, sunny skies and cotton-candy clouds. Run the Jewels prefer to deal in sledgehammer baselines, dick jokes and mud-slinging. El-P’s never met a six-string he couldn’t turn into a taser. Mike would prefer to light the sky by torch, let clouds unfurl from his blunt. The paramount jewel runners have never been cuddly. All thorn no rose, per El-P. And yet, hearing a new RTJ record just sounds good. Good for your soul, good for your conscience. It’s heartwarming, hip-hop comfort food. Run The Jewels are chicken soup with sarin broth.
Maybe it’s because we already know what a new RTJ record entails. There’s solace in stability, even if we want it darker, harder, angrier. We knew it would be produced in its entirety by El-P, and we are well versed in his penchant for blowing slaphappy subwoofers. We could safely assume El-P would make dick jokes, and Killer Mike would threaten everything you’ve ever loved. We knew that the features would be expertly chosen, integral parts of a unified whole. We knew they would smoke pounds of their own supply and endow lucid, level headed commentary without compromising necessary urgency. We knew RTJ3 would be great. What we didn’t know is how much we needed it.
For one, it is among the most technically stunning albums released since, well, Run The Jewels 2. The beats are boom-bap put through a garburator, transmogrified into cybernetic thunderclaps. And the rapping is damn near perfect. El-P is still finding new ways to euro-step around a beat, and Killer Mike continues to rap like a one man insurrection. These are rappin’-ass-rap songs. No cliches, no punchline groaners. Producto and Killa Kill are world-class shit-talkers, dual trifectas of vocabulary, wit and bathroom humour. They could make Kevin Garnett’s lip quiver, bring Jordan to his knees.
And while their shits-n-giggles tandem provides appreciated levity, what makes RTJ3 a vital capstone to 2016 are its sober moments, extensions of what they perfected on Run The Jewels 2. These songs are rich with anger and exasperation, fight music to withstand tear gas and war-machines. The Tunde Adebimpe featuring “Theives! (Screamed The Ghost)” is canonized with “DDFH” and “Early’s” scathing critiques of militant police enforcement. Mike’s turn on “Thursday In The Danger Room” recalls his quest for redemption from “Crown,” though now projecting his absolution upon perpetrator of a friend’s murder. Jaime and Mike smartly play to their strengths and continue to streamline their winning formula —namely: pummelling bass, clattering drums, dystopian synths and righteous fury. They’re bird-flipping poster-children for consistency and, while at times it may seem they’re retreading familiar ground, it becomes obvious they chose to place more emphasis on the longevity of their ideals than their time on the charts.
In the dwindling weeks of Obama’s presidency, on the eve of ambiguous sea-change, RTJ3 acts as a Pandora’s box of conflicting emotions. The jokes are goofier, but that doesn’t betray the higher stakes. It’s more somber than it’s red-with-rage precursor, yet less cynical. It was forged by indignation and uproar, by the overworked and underprivileged. It’s an album airing out d’evils of the world and trying not to drown in them. But, just as with the aforementioned greek myth, among the wickedness and corruption, depravity and malevolence aired out, in its bleakest recesses lies RTJ3’s true takeaway: Hope. In his 2013 lecture at the RBMA, El-P said of himself : “I’m very hopeful and I’m romantic and […] I don’t think it’s all fucked.” RTJ3 is a record for the darkest days of a seemingly losing battle. It’s for moments of reflection, and shining light on seemingly insurmountable odds. Run the Jewels recognize a silver lining. Or, at least they see one the horizon.
RTJ3 will be enshrined with its predecessor as a product of its environment. There’s triumph and defeat in equal parts: The last half decade of their careers is the stuff of folklore, but arriving on the cusp of cold war, plodded along by a troll in possession of nuclear codes. Unfairly, we expect Mike and El to address all this with cool heads and hot hands. Run the Jewels have evolved into the platonic ideal of the ‘it’ Dead Prez referred to as “bigger than Hip-Hop.” They are the best rap-group` in the world, and knowing that Michael Render and Jaime Meline are somewhere doing ‘shrooms together is enough to ease encumbered minds. The gravity of their situation isn’t lost on them. On “2100,” El-P rhymes “Look into my eyes/I’m standing by your side at the fight/Minds over might.” Mike raps “Make love, smoke kush, try to laugh hard and live long/ That’s the antidote/You defeat the devil when you hold onto hope.” It’s good to know they’re along for the ride.
Thomas Johnson is the tallest rap critic in Calgary. His work has yet to appear in the Louvre.